Monday, January 25, 2016

Early Reviews

The first book review John D MacDonald ever received was for his third novel, Wine of the Dreamers. Tellingly, the title was a hardcover release and -- even more tellingly -- it was a science fiction story. For while having a novel published in hardcover definitely increased the odds that it would be reviewed in one of the thousands of periodicals published in the mid-Twentieth Century, having as its content speculative fiction almost guaranteed its review, at least in the magazines that specialized in such content. For no other group of fiction readers was as passionate and as comprehensive as the science fiction community of the last century.

Unlike most other pulp or digest magazines, many science fiction periodicals contained regular non-fiction features that were standard fare in the slicks: editorials, a letter column, and a book review section. Wine of the Dreamers was reviewed in no less than four sf magazines, as was JDM’s second such effort, Ballroom of the Skies. The fact that these two books were both hardcovers (MacDonald’s first and second hardcover novels) also got them reviews in several major newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times and Herald-Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and Saturday Review. (I’m speaking here of reviews contemporaneous with the initial publication, not ones for later editions.) MacDonald wouldn’t get a review of a non-science fiction novel until Dead Low Tide, his eighth book.

I thought it would be fun to look at the reviews of these two novels, to see what critics thought of the author back in the beginning, and to adduce MacDonald’s standing in the science fiction community of the time. The reviews are generally favorable it is is clear that JDM was thought of as “one of them,” a member of the sf culture, and one in good standing. I’ve also included two reviews of his third and last science fiction effort, The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything, even though it appeared long after MacDonald had left the (extra terrestrial) building.

In 1964 MacDonald wrote “I don't believe I’ve ever received a considered, thoughtful review of anything I’ve written. I’ve had a few compliments, like being called a master story-teller, but considered reviews -- never.” These reviews (with the exception of Judith Merril’s piece on the third book) don’t belie that judgement, but they appeared with assessments of works by authors such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and were no less respectful or serious than the considerations given these science fiction luminaries.

Galaxy: December 1951, reviewed by Groff Conklin

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald. Greenberg: Publisher, New York, 1951.
219 pages, $2.75

A GOOD example of the "we're property" type of science fiction which assumes that an extraterrestrial, extrahuman race is able to make us do more or less what it wants.

In this well-written novel, many of the accidents, crimes of violence, and unexplained tragedies of the world, and in particular the failure of every attempt at launching a spaceship, are due to the machinations of a group of individuals numbering fewer than a thousand, called the

These Watchers, who inhabit a planet several star systems away, are able to enter the bodies of Earthians at will and make these bodies do anything they choose to. This is accomplished by super-hypnotism machines. The irony of the situation revolves around the fact that the Watchers are sublimely convinced that we are mere dreams created for their pleasure, and have no actual reality.

The story is woven around the final discovery by the Watchers that we are "real," and by us that
most of our Earth’s miseries are caused by these utterly remote aliens, who turn out to be descendants from our own ancestors of at least tens of thousands of years ago.

That the plot and the concepts are not simon-pure originals, both being reminiscent, of Eric Frank Russell's famous "we're property" novels, is unimportant. The skill and the imagination
with which the tale is developed are genuinely satisfying.

Amazing Stories: January 1952, reviewed by Sam Merwin

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald, Greenberg: Publisher, New York ($2.75).

The finest science-fiction effort to date by one of the country's ablest all-around young writers, this is a fascinating story in which a pair of far-distant worlds (and two others) become inextricably interinvolved.

The Dreamers are at the dead-end of a former interstellar civilization, live in a single building which they have come to consider the entire cosmos and pass their adult lives for the most part lying on comfortable pallets and, with the aid of devices left them by their more energetic forebears, living strange visions of life on three highly-varied planets they consider entirely imaginary.

One of the three is Earth in the very near future and, since the Dreamers can actually possess whomever they choose to and have them do the most dreadful things, their existence is far from the harmless idyll they hold it to be. Ultimately it is discovered the Dreamers, unaware of the harm they do, are actually responsible for much of the insanity, crime and suicide that plague our world today.

Happily, among them is a born rebel, named Raul, who is born with a nasty, suspicious turn of mind and decides there is more to the universe than the Dreamers have any idea of. His sister, Leesa, is rebellious, but in a different way. She doesn't want her love-life in dreams and doesn't care who gets hurt as long as her frustrations stay with her.

Between the two of them and some of their elders they manage to make a fine hash of things for Bard Lane, in charge of construction for what should be Man's first successful space ship, and Sharan Inly, the comely psychiatrist who loves him. Ultimately the Dreamers even manage to sabotage the ship and get Bard locked up in a quilted booby-hatch.

From then on it's every man for himself, with the reader coming out well ahead, thanks to the clarity of Mr. MacDonald's concept and the crisp, continued excitement induced by his fine writing. One of the better jobs of the year.

Astounding Science Fiction: April 1952, reviewed by P Schuyler Miller

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg: Publisher, New York. 1951. 219 pp. $2.75

Here is another science-fiction novel which, like several of the publisher's previous books of science fiction and fantasy, has not previously been serialized -- and it's good.

Here on Earth a group of scientists headed by Bard Lane and watched over by beautiful psychiatrist Sharon Inly are trying to build the first ship powered by an interstellar drive. Obstacle after obstacle is put in their way, and it begins to appear that they are somehow "possessed" by hostile hypnosis when the reader learns that the possessing minds are those of a dwindling race of Watchers, stars away across the Galaxy, who believe that the minds they invade telepathically are those of dream creatures of their own invention, and who take childishly -- or senilely -- cruel delight in smashing these dream-creations when they wake.

How Bard and Sharon learn the truth, and how two of the Dreamers, atavistic Raul Kinson and his sister Leesa, uncover the history of their own bleak planet and their three "dream" worlds and fight against the law of their kind to bring reality out of dreams, is the story, It is well and smoothly told, with likable characters a bit beyond the cardboard stage.

Science Fiction Adventures: November 1952, reviewed by Damon Knight

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald. Greenberg, 219 pages, $2.75

Psychiatry returns full circle to the devil theory in this tightly-knit science-adventure novel, first published in Startling Stories two years ago. Pointing to the incessant newspaper reports of persons afflicted with sudden homicidal insanity (see the first three pages of your local tabloid), MacDonald suggests a fantastic but almost water-tight explanation: Degenerate descendants of the extra-solar race which colonized this planet 10,000 years ago, using hypnotic thought-projectors originally designed for benevolent surveillance, invade our minds, force us to cruel or absurd acts for their own pleasure.

Also, obeying a law whose purpose is long forgotten, they sabotage our every attempt to achieve space-travel. This is the peg on which MacDonald hangs a plot which is routine but workmanlike, and occasional passages of mood-writing or social comment that are a little more.

Like all stories that postulate an extra-solar origin for humanity, this one neglects such thorny acts as homo sap's resemblance to Neanderthal, Piltdown Man, the anthropoid apes and other vertebrates not likely to have been carried along on a colonist's vessel. This is the only major flaw in the argument, (though a minor one,- the number of the "Watchers" - 800 - is inadequate to account for all the damage they are supposed to do), and the careful, substantial detail-work is more than good enough to offset it.

MacDonald, a writer with an unusual combination of traits -  industry and talent - has been selling heavily to the slick magazines and other highpay markets of late; this novel is probably one of the last science-fiction stories we'll see from him for some time.

Galaxy: June 1953, reviewed by Groff Conklin

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

It looks as if it has been decided that the next war will eliminate most if not all of the U.S.A., Russia and Europe.

As noted below, Sprague de Camp [in The Continent Makers] makes Brazil the center of his new era. [H. Beam] Piper, in his novelette in [the anthology] The Petrified Planet ["Uller Uprising"](above), believes that South America, Africa and Australia will be the scenes of future greatness. In John MacDonald's new one, India is the "new colossus," the rich and arrogant "U.S.A. of tomorrow," with the original U.S.A. nothing but a rundown tourist trap.

Pessimism or prophecy? Who knows?

Ballroom is an exciting and effective alien invasion novel, a bit reminiscent of Eric Russell's Sinister Barrier. The problem: why is Earth always warring? Why do the "good people" never take control? The answer, when it comes, is both silly and defeatist; but in the process of getting there, MacDonald unreels an enthralling tale, full of parapsychological gadgetry and wonderful supermen from another galaxy in our midst, etc.

Worthwhile, despite the unsatisfactory ending.

Astounding Science Fiction: October 1953, reviewed by Groff Conlkin

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

Again, we're owned. Again, a superman is found to use his un-understood dark talents for humanity. But this time it's a little better done than it has been of late.

By 1967 the United States has been reduced to second-rate status by World War III. Dake Lorin is idealistically trying to work for an international balance which will save his Country from total submersion, and the world from another war. The man who is his ideal seems to betray everything for which they have been working. He tries to reveal the sellout -- finds himself referred to a crime-baron -- is involved with a beautiful girl of remarkable mental powers -- and finds himself a student in a strange school among the stars.

Since the secret of this school of worlds, the importance of certain Earthmen to galactic civilization, and the philosophy behind the plot and counterplot on Earth are the theme of the book, they cannot be revealed here. Enough to say that the motives involved are at least as controversial as the ending of [Jack] Williamson's Humanoids. Maybe there'll be discussion over them.

Startling Stories: January 1954, reviewed by Damon Knight

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

It is our sad, but civic, duty to report that Ballroom of the Skies is a potboiler which impressed us as being unworthy of the talented typewriter which turned out Wine of the Dreamers and "Shadow on the Sand." Mr. MacDonald seems to have caught a slight case of obfuscation, circa van Vogt and attempted the same stunt of having his story gallop off in all directions.

The result is confusion, as it always is. Moreover, the attempt to create menace and an eerie "other world" atmosphere by style alone is forced and unconvincing.

We are resisting manfully the temptation to say something nice about the book merely because we have, under normal circumstances, so high an opinion of Mr. MacDonald's capabilities. It is our conviction that this is a book which should never have been written or published. It is pretentious and empty.

The theme is the now familiar "we are owned by superior beings" who live among us and guide our destinies and fight over us with other inimical superior beings -- all unknown to us. The hero is a crusading newspaper man, the girl is an alien disguised as a chippy for the purpose of -- who knows?

Buy it if you must. If you're a MacDonald fan you might even like it!

Analog: September 1963, reviewed by P Schuyler Miller

The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything by John D MacDonald. Gold Medal Books, N.Y. No. S-1259. 1962. 207 pp. 35¢.

This yarn starts like one of the author's highly professional mystery-action books, with the "ninny" hero -- the term is his own, and frequently justified -- stumbling along amid the ministrations of assorted people who are convinced that he has inherited the secret of his late uncle's success. Then he finds that he does indeed have that secret, and how to use it, and the action takes on a touch of Thorne Smith.

The secret is a kind of time-machine disguised as a gold watch. Rather, it is a device like Wells' "new accelerator," that plunges its holder into a red-lit limbo in which he can live an hour's time while the unaffected world passes fractions of a second. He likewise acquires the Girl, an uninhibited hillbilly nightclub singer named Bonny Lee Beaumont who meets him in bed and thereafter proves useful in other ways, not the least that of livening the action by her antics after borrowing the watch on a Miami beach.

There are other girls in passing: a sort of westernized Dragon Lady who leads the opposition and is at one point likened to a pack of Gabors, her TV-actress niece, and an underrated office drudge who has a couple of opportunities to be rated before the skulduggery is over.

The author's smooth hand with a word makes it all quite plausible and a lot of fun.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: November 1965, reviewed by Judith Merril

See my previous posting: Judith Merril on JDM.

Monday, January 18, 2016


The history of science fiction in the postwar period is, primarily, the history of three magazines that published this genre of literature for the masses. Astounding Science Fiction, which had begun publication in 1930, changed personalities under the editorship of John W. Campbell in 1938 with a more adult oriented kind of story, and he carried that editorial viewpoint on into the 1950’s. Under Campbell it was the undisputed leader in publishing serious sf, and was only challenged in 1949 by the emergence of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and then again in 1950 by the new kid on the block, Galaxy Science Fiction. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of what we now call classic science fiction appeared in the pages of these three magazines.

Galaxy began life in October of 1950 and became an almost immediate success. It’s editorial policy, as envisioned by editor H. L. Gold, was to present a more expansive kind of fiction that included more psychology, sociology and satire than generally appeared in other science fiction magazines of the time. The title of Gold’s editorial in the inaugural issue said it all: “For Adults Only”. Gone were the lurid covers featuring "naked maidens, prognathous youths in winter underwear of gold lame, and monsters that can exist only on the nutrients found in India ink and Bristol board." And gone would be the kinds of stories that Gold sought to supplant, which he outlined in a later editorial that still has its laugh-out-loud moments:

Fictional warnings of nuclear and biological destruction, the post-atomic world, reversion to barbarism, mutant children slain because they have only ten toes and fingers instead of twelve, absurdly planned and preposterously successful revolts against dictatorships, problems of survival wearily turned over to women, war between groups, nations, worlds and solar systems.

Flying Saucers, cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians in space, the duel between the good guy and the bad guy alone on an asteroid, the bright revelation that the characters we have been reading about are Adam and Eve or Jesus, the creation of a miniature universe in a laboratory by a scientist whose name turns out to be an anagram of Jehovah, the alien eater of life force in the Andes whose menu consists exclusively of pretty virgins.

In that same editorial he summarized succinctly what he did want: “Science fiction answers in dramatic terms the unstated question: ‘What would happen if --?’"

John D MacDonald had three stories published in Galaxy, his first, “Susceptibility,” in the magazine’s fourth issue. MacDonald’s sf output, which peaked in 1949 with 16 stories, was on the wane by the time Galaxy came along, but the work he provided for the magazine was excellent and it is clear that if he had wanted to continue writing these kinds of stories he could have developed into a real science fiction “name”. But as time has told the tale, he had other things in mind.

The future in "Susceptibility" is one where the people of Earth have colonized the galaxy, setting up cities on uninhabited planets, called Centers, where every imaginable convenience and provision is available. These colonial planets are administered by the Colonial Bureau, and when problems arise the Colonial Adjustment Bureau sends out a Praecursor to investigate. One such “problem” occurred when the populace of a particular planet suffered "emotional degeneration," which caused a superstitious fear of the facilities in the Centers;  they reacted by moving off into the woods. A Praecursor was sent and the colonists were "re-educated."

There is a similar problem on planet Able XII. Seven years prior to the beginning of the story a Praecursor was sent to find out why the field stations and Centers were underutilized, why no "entertainment" was imported, and why the planet was canceled from the tour schedules for lack of business. After investigating, the Praecursor sent his empty ship back to earth, on automatic pilot, with his resignation  fastened to the flight panel. Now another Praecursor has arrived and seeks to interrogate Able XII's leader.

He is directed to a humble cabin deep in the thick woods, miles from the nearest Center. As he approaches undetected, he spots a lone female chopping wood.

Exposure to the rays of the yellow-white sun, half again the size of Sol, had turned her to copper bronze, against which the mane of yellow hair was quite startling. He found that he was taking pleasure in watching the smooth play of muscles in her naked back as she swung the instrument against the tree. Each stroke bit out a chunk of the soft yellowish wood, veined with green. Exertion had put a sheen of perspiration on her shoulders.

The Praecursor is named Sean Malloy and the beautiful “leader” is Deen Thomason. Once Malloy makes himself known he expresses surprise that the planet's "leader" would live in such a primitive environment. "Let's be accurate, Malloy," Deen responds. "This year it happened to be my turn to represent the village at general meetings, and also the turn of my village to supply the chairman for the meeting." Malloy learns that nearly everyone on Able XII lives similarly, some in tiny villages, most in remote settings. The leader issues no orders and the people keep no records, preferring to live a life of manual labor, building their own homes and growing their own food.

This seems incredible to Malloy. Housing has been provided in the various Centers, food can be replicated in an instant, and transport is made available between the various Centers via "tele-tubes." When he is invited to Deen’s cabin he is again surprised to witness her bathe in a nearby stream and eat food pulled up from a garden behind the home. The conversation between the two reveals a vast rift between two different cultures, and Able XII certainly seems like a candidate for re-education. But Deen offers to show Malloy evidence that at least one of the Centers on the planet is occupied and in use. Once they arrive things initially appear normal, but soon Malloy begins to notice oddities that make no sense to him and require explanation…

In Martin H Greenberg’s brief introduction to the story in the JDM science fiction anthology Other Times Other Worlds, he calls “Susceptibility” a story about alienation. I suppose that is true up to a point, but it seems to me the story has a deeper undercurrent, that of the true nature of mankind, hinted at in the tale’s title. Early on when Malloy is secretly watching the topless Deen chopping wood, he does so with a "surprising pleasure," and makes a note to himself to apply for "deep psychological analysis" upon his return home, as "Precursors who became emotionally involved with colonial women suffered a loss of efficiency. It would be wise to have this susceptibility tracked down and eliminated." And it seems that a portion of mankind is always susceptible to a simpler, albeit harder, means of living their lives, free from atrophying convenience and a centralized form of government. In that respect it would seem MacDonald also has a political message here, but if he does it is only obliquely touched on.

“Susceptibility” is an above-average JDM short story, and an above-average JDM science fiction short story, one whose theme would be used by countless authors afterward, and probably before. All three of his Galaxy stories are good ones, and all were included in Other Times, Other Worlds. “Susceptibility” was also anthologized in The First Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction, published in 1952 and edited by Gold himself. Other Times, Other Worlds is out of print and has inexplicably been omitted from the long list of recent JDM eBook reissues, but used copies of the paperback are always available from the usual sources.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Twentieth Century Authors: John D MacDonald

July 24th of this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of John D MacDonald, and during this centenary year there is a lot of activity going on to mark the occasion. Appropriately, Sarasota is the focal point of this celebration, with the library system there sponsoring monthly events throughout the year. (Visit One Book One Community for details.) The Sarasota Herald-Tribune is planning 52 weekly columns written by guest authors recalling how JDM and his works inspired their own writing. If the first two columns (by John Jakes and Stephen King) are any indication of the quality of this series, we are in for a year-long treat. I’ve even had word that a new biography may be published in 2016.

I’ve been going through my collection and revisiting some of the critical and biographical works on MacDonald over the years, much of it cursory and bland in the early part of his career. There were several book critics like Anthony Boucher, Clarence Petersen and Jonathan Yardley who unfailingly sung his praises, but his real recognition as an author didn’t really come until 1975 when he made it into the standard reference book of English language fiction writers.

Twentieth Century Authors was first published in 1942, four years before MacDonald's first story was published and eight years before his first novel. The reference work set out to "provide a foundation-volume of authentic biographical information on the writers of this century, of all nations, whose books are familiar to readers of English." It quickly became the standard and sat on the shelves in the Reference sections of thousands of American libraries. The First Supplement followed in 1955, updating the information of the previously-included authors and adding 700 more. MacDonald was not one of them.

Then, in 1975 a new editor produced a companion volume of 959 new writers and titled it World Authors: 1950 - 1970, ignoring the previously covered authors and broadening the scope of the work. MacDonald made the cut and was, as with all of the writers, asked to provide his own biography, which would be appended by a brief critical piece. Only half of the authors provided this autobiography but MacDonald was one of them.

I’ve transcribed it below and have included it as one of the links in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources available in the right hand column of this blog. There’s no real new information for anyone familiar with MacDonald’s background, but it’s interesting to hear it in his own words. What is, for me, the most eye-opening aspect of this inclusion is JDM’s listing of his most important works, or as he put it himself, his "own modest selection of 'the few which might properly be mentioned.'" It includes Cancel All Our Vows, his first attempt at mainstream acceptance, and is a work I’ve never seen mentioned by him as one of his greats. Coincidentally or not, all but one of the novels included were first published in hardcover.

Oh, and there is no Travis McGee title on the list.

MACDONALD, JOHN D(ANN) (July 24, 1916- ), American detective story writer, writes: "I was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania. My father was a corporation executive, doing accounting and financial work. I have a younger sister. When I was twelve my father went with a company in Utica, New York. My mother and my married sister still live in Utica.

"I went to the public schools in Sharon and Utica, and after graduation from high school, attended the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. I left abruptly after a year and a half and worked for a time in New York City at whatever I could find. I went to Syracuse University, and from there to the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration where I received a master's degree.

"I met and married Dorothy Prentiss while at Syracuse, and our only child, Maynard John Prentiss MacDonald, was born while I was at Harvard.

"I had brief and mutually unsatisfactory encounters with several employers, and then accepted a commission as a lieutenant in the Ordnance Department of the Army in June 1940. I spent two and a half years in the China-Burma-India Theater, the latter portion with the Office of Strategic Services, and was discharged as a Lieutenant Colonel in January of 1946.

"While overseas I wrote a short story in lieu of a letter to Dorothy, hoping to amuse and entertain her. She typed it and submitted it to Whit Burnett of Story Magazine, who purchased it for twenty-five dollars. I did not learn of this until she met me at Fort Dix.

"Instead of seeking work I decided that I would be a writer. Our cushion was four months of terminal leave with pay. During those four months I wrote over a quarter of a million words of finished manuscript, all in short story form. I kept from thirty to forty stories in the mail at all times. I worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and lost a noticeable amount of weight. I believe that, except for Dorothy, I was thought of as a readjustment problem.

“One learns only by writing. I compressed years of learning into a very few months. By the end of 1946 it became clear to us that I could support us by writing alone, and this has been our only source of income ever since. We lived in upstate New York, in Texas, in Mexico, and have lived in Florida since 1949.

"When I was a child I was continually being torn away from my books and herded out into the sunlight, into the dreary glare of reality. I required glasses quite young. In high school and in college I had the wistful feeling that I would like to write, but could not really believe that I could ever make that magic which I read so compulsively. This hesitancy kept me from making the try until I was nearly thirty.

"Now I cannot imagine being anything else or doing anything else. I feel like an impostor twice over. When my publishers and my agent tell me that over thirty-seven million copies of my sixty books have been sold all over the world, I cannot relate such an absurdity to this quite solitary adventure of trying, every time, to reach a little further, tell it more validly and simply. Learning is a constant, but it goes so slowly that impatience often becomes a kind of despair.

"The second feeling of imposture arises from my being aware of my own automatic, unconscious watchfulness. Memory and sensory perceptions provide excellent input and storage. The paradox is in being so attuned to reality, so anxious to write novels which create the illusion of reality, stress, randomness and man's sad and comical gallantry, that one stands a little aside from all the direct impact of life. I suspect that were I to be executed, I would watch and weigh each quantum of panic and despair, checking it for sincerity and usability.

"I work long each day, and usually have at least three books in various stages of clumsiness, letting the subconscious mind untie the knots of the ones on the shelf while I work on the one in front of me. I revise by throwing out whole chapters, sections, even whole books, and starting again—a device which seems to enhance freshness. I fight to keep from becoming too ornate, the most egocentric form of author-intrusion. I tend to neaten things up too carefully at the end. Many of my solutions are too glib.

"But the joy, of course, is in doing thirty or forty passable pages and then doing just one or two where everything works just a little bit better than you have ever been able to make it work before, and thus says more than the words themselves say. And the chance of more such pages is the carrot, forever just out of reach."

MacDonald's early sales, in the mid-1940s, were mainly to the pulp magazines—adventure, sports, mystery, western, and science fiction stories. Since his first book, The Brass Cupcake, appeared in 1950, he has published some sixty novels. A few of his early books, like Wine of the Dreamers (1951) and Ballroom of the Skies (1952), are readable and provocative science fiction, but the vast majority are thrillers. Fifteen of these (as of 1973) recount the exploits of Travis McGee, a hard-bitten but quixotic private detective whose home base is a Florida houseboat. These tough, sexy, and intricately plotted thrillers are written on a lower level, intellectually and stylistically, than Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories, but are in the same tradition and, since ten million McGees were in print in 1972, are evidently no less readable.

Other MacDonald stories are in a genre which Anthony Boucher once described as the author's "patented combination of the novel, the thriller, the puzzle and the social commentary." A notably successful example is The Executioners (1958, filmed and reprinted as Cape Fear). Its hero is not a detective but a successful lawyer, leading a happy suburban life with his wife and children. Many years before he had been responsible for the conviction of a GI rapist, and his security crumbles abruptly with the release of this monster, who arrives in town intent on revenge and begins a long murderous game of cat and mouse. As one reviewer said, the book "takes a deeper look than most suspense novels at the problem of private and public justice." Anne Ross called it "an exciting story which keeps you reading from start to finish. MacDonald is no practitioner of the distinguished style or the sensitive detail, but he can spin an expert yarn." There was even more critical enthusiasm for A Flash of Green, which studies the defeat of a group of conservationists by local businessmen who want to develop (and destroy) a beautiful bay. The result seemed to one English reviewer "an exceptionally good novel about the corruption of the human spirit."

Not all of MacDonald's books are novels. The House Guests (1965) is an agreeable portrait of the MacDonalds' pets, and No Deadly Drug is a detailed and very objective record of the 1966 trial for murder of Dr. Carl Coppolino. It is some measure of MacDonald's popularity that Anthony Boucher in 1967 was able to report the existence of the JDM Bibliophile, a California magazine "which attempts to straighten out the almost infinitely complex bibliography of John D. (who doesn't know some of the answers himself)."

The short list of titles below is the author's own modest selection of "the few which might properly be mentioned."

MacDonald is a big man, over six feet tall. He likes to watch pro football, hockey, and bullfighting, and himself enjoys many sports, including skiing, fishing, and sailing. He has given up bridge and golf because they take up too much of his time, but is an ardent poker player and a photographer of semiprofessional caliber. MacDonald is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America and received the MWA's Grand Master Award in 1972.

PRINCIPAL WORKS: Fiction—Cancel All Our Vows, 1953; The Executioners, 1958 (reprinted as Cape Fear); The End of the Night, 1960; A Key to the Suite, 1962; A Flash of Green, 1962; The Last One Left, 1967. Nonfiction —No Deadly Drug, 1968.

Monday, January 4, 2016

No Girl in the Plain Brown Grave

Last week’s posting discussed John D MacDonald’s 1948 novella “No Grave Has My Love,” which originally appeared in the December 1948 issue of Dime Detective and was later reprinted in the British edition of Black Mask. I focused mainly on the history of overseas versions of pulp titles, outlined the plot of “No Grave Has My Love,” and offered a brief opinion on the quality of the story. What I didn’t do, because it didn’t occur to me until after I wrote the article, was to reveal the fact that the novella was the origin of part of the plot of a later JDM novel, a Travis McGee title no less. I happened to be listening to the latest audio book version of The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (expertly read by Robert Petkoff) and suddenly I recognized several of the plot points of “No Grave Has My Love,” updated with 1968 scientific advancements. I don’t know why this didn’t ring a bell with me, considering how many times I’ve read Brown.

Recall that in “No Grave Has My Love,” Dr. Andre Spence is a renowned surgeon who has developed a means of treating psychosis through a unique method of performing a lobectomy. This technique not only cures the mental malady, it erases recent memory. Spence is trapped in a loveless marriage, to a “mountainous” woman who is bedridden. He has fallen in love with one of his nurses and comes up with a plan to kill off the wife by substituting water for morphine in the ampules the nurse draws from and administers. He is successful in killing the wife but is undone when the nurse begins suspecting something fishy after Spence reacts to her offer to return the unused ampules to the dispensary. Spence’s intention was to drop them in some inconspicuous place and “crush them with his heel.” He decides to perform his surgery on the nurse so she will forget everything about the dead wife and her illness.

(I can’t imagine there’s anyone reading this blog who hasn’t already read The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, but if you haven’t I’m about to spoil the plot.)

Twenty years later MacDonald brushed off this means-to-an-end, updated the science, and reused it for different characters in different situations. In The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper Travis McGee is fulfilling the request of a recently dead paramour by checking up on her married daughter, one Maureen Pike. Following a second miscarriage Maureen has descended into a strange kind of childlike psychosis and had made several attempts at suicide. She also disappears for long periods and returns with no memory of where she was or what she did. It develops that her husband, Tom Pike, is dosing her with a substance called puromycin, which makes her lose memory of recent events. His ultimate goal is to kill off Maureen by making it look like suicide and marry her sister for what will be a very large estate.

Pike has obtained the puromycin from a local doctor named Stewart Sherman who he was blackmailing after he learned of the doctor’s murder of his wife. A police detective named Stanger, talking with McGee, goes into the very familiar details:

"Nobody is ever going to prove anything on him, and it wouldn't do much good now anyway. But let me tell you something. I have lived a long time and I have seen a lot of things and I have seen a lot of women, but I never saw a worse woman in my life than Joan Sherman. Honest to Christ, she was a horror. She made every day of that doctor's life pure hell on earth. Damn voice onto her like a blue heron. She was the drill instructor and he was the buckass private. Treated him like he was a moron. One of those great big loud virtuous churchgoing ladies with a disposition like a pit viper. Full of good works. She was a diabetic. Had it pretty bad too but kept in balance. I forget how many units of insulin she had to shoot herself with in the morning. Wouldn't let the doctor shoot her. Said he was too damned clumsy with a needle. Three years ago she went into diabetic coma and died."

"He arrange it?"

Stanger shrugged. "If he did, he took such a long time to figure it out, he didn't miss a trick."

"Want me to beg? Okay. I'm begging."

"Back then the Shermans lived about six miles out, pretty nice house right in the middle of ten acres of groveland. We were having a telephone strike and things got pretty nasty. They were cutting underground cables and so on. She'd had her car picked up on a Friday to be serviced, and they were going to bring it back Monday. Because of the phones out that way being out, he thought he'd better drive in Sunday morning and see to some patients he had in the hospital. Besides, he had to pick up some insulin for her, he told us later, because she used the last ampule she had that morning. He'd pick up a month's supply at a time for her. He made his rounds and then he went to his office and worked awhile. Nobody would think that was strange. He stayed away from her as much as he dared and nobody blamed him. He said he was supposed to get back by five because a couple was coming for drinks and dinner. But he lost track of the time. The couple came and rang the bell and the woman went and looked in the window and saw her on the couch. She looked funny, the woman said. The husband broke in. No phone working. They put her in the car and headed for the hospital. They met Doc Sherman on his way out and honked and waved him down. She was DOA. They say he was a mighty upset man. There was a fresh needlemark in her thigh from her morning shot, so she hadn't forgotten. He said she never forgot. They did an autopsy, but there wasn't much point in it. I don't remember the biochemistry of it, but there just aren't any tests that will show whether you did or did not take insulin. It breaks down or disappears or something. County law checked the house. The needle had been rinsed and put in the sterilizer. The ampule was in the bathroom wastebasket. There was a drop or so left in it. That tested out full strength. The doctors decided there had been a sudden change in her condition and so the dose she was used to taking just wasn't enough. Also, they'd had pancakes and maple syrup and sweet rolls for breakfast. He said she kept to her diet pretty well, but Sunday breakfast was her single exception all week. Now, tell me how he did it. That is, if he did it."

After a few minutes of thought, I had a solution, but I had been smartass too often with Stanger, so I gave up.

It pleased him. "He brought home an identical ampule of distilled water, maybe making the switch of the contents in his office. Gets up in the night and switches the water for the insulin. She gets up in the morning and shoots water into her leg. Before he goes to the hospital, he goes into the bathroom, fishes the water ampule out of the wastebasket, takes the needle out of the sterilizer, draws the insulin out of the one he filched and shoots it down the sink, puts the genuine ampule in the wastebasket, rinses the needle and syringe, and puts it back into the sterilizer. On the way into town he could have stopped, crushed the ampule under his heel, and kicked the powdered glass into the dirt if he wanted to be real careful. I think he was careful, and patient. I think maybe he waited for a lot of years until the situation was just exactly right. I mean maybe you could stand living with a terrible old broad like that if you knew that someday, somehow, you were going to do it just right. Nice?"

MacDonald reused lots of business from his early years into his later novels (like jewels in a wax-filled canteen), but this is one where a novel’s entire plot turns on not one but two inventions from the same early story. I wonder how many more are out there?